Monday, 30 November 2015

Forced marriage: What can health professionals do? (30 November 2015)

Zlakha Ahmed

Forced marriage can affect both women and men, although men are affected in lower numbers. A forced marriage is one in which one or both parties do not consent to the marriage, but are coerced into it (Chantler 2012). Duress can include physical, psychological, financial, sexual and emotional pressure. In cases of vulnerable adults who lack the capacity to consent to marriage, coercion is not required for a marriage to be forced. Forced marriage is regarded as a form of domestic abuse and, depending on age, child abuse. Most cases involve young women and girls aged between 10 - 30 (Alijah & Chantler 2015, Quek 2013).

An aspect of forced marriage is Honour-based violence. The terms “honour-based violence” or

“Izzat” [Honour] embrace a variety of crimes of violence, including assault, imprisonment and murder where the person is being punished by their family or their community for actually, or allegedly, undermining what the family or community believes to be the correct code of behaviour.

Many victims as well as health care professionals may assume that health professionals cannot help them. For this reason, it is unlikely that a victim will present to a health professional as going through or gone through a forced marriage. However, if a health professional is aware of forced marriages and the ways in which victims can be helped, they are in an ideal position to provide early and effective intervention. They can offer practical help by providing information about rights and choices. They can also assist victims by referring them on to the police, social care services, support groups, counselling services and appropriate support groups.

An encounter with a health professional may be the only opportunity some women have to tell anyone what is happening to them. To prevent this type of domestic abuse it is imperative that health professionals are prepared to use these limited opportunities to openly discuss the issues around forced marriage (Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Home Office 2013). There will be occasions when an individual does not mention forced marriage, but presents with signs or symptoms, which, if recognised, may indicate to the health professional that they are within a forced marriage or under threat of one. Women may have unexplained injuries, be depressed, anxious or self-harming. Some women may attend for a completely different reason and mention in passing that there are “family problems” – with careful questioning, they may disclose more.

As health professionals, you can use the experience and expertise of the forced marriage unit to help support you in dealing with this issue. You can offer information and support to individuals who: fear that they are going to be forced into a marriage (in the UK or overseas); or fear for a friend or relative who may be forced into a marriage (in the UK or overseas); have already been forced into a marriage and want to consider their next steps. Health care professionals can help by providing information about existing networks, including social care services, police, health and non-governmental organisations. Providing information on how to seek legal remedies in the UK and overseas may also be helpful (Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Home Office 2013).

The above has been adapted from the Government Forced Marriage Guidelines for Health professionals


Alijah, Z., & Chantler, K. (2015). Forced Marriage Is a Child Protection Matter. Domestic Violence and Protecting Children: New Thinking and Approaches, 97.

Chantler, K. (2012). Recognition of and intervention in forced marriage as a form of violence and abuse. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 13, 176-183.

Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Home Office (2015). Information and practice guidelines for professionals protecting, advising and supporting victims. (Accessed 27 November 2015)

Quek, K. (2013). A Civil Rather than Criminal Offence? Forced Marriage, Harm and the Politics of Multiculturalism in the UK. The British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 15, 626-646.

Author’s profile

Zalkha Ahmed holds a Higher National Diploma in Business studies, a Certificate in Education and a Post Graduate Diploma in Youth and community. She is the founder of Apna Haq organisation that supports black and ethnic minority women on issues of domestic and sexual violence.

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